Friday, July 24, 2009

It's been a while!!

Well now, I certainly have failed my own test so far as regular postings are concerned, but here we go again - and with a mid year resolution to post at least weekly!!

What, then, has finally got me motivated to post this week, you may well ask? I am pleased to say it was a good news event - the announcement of the National Tertiary Teacher Excellence Awards at Parliament on Tuesday night. I was at the ceremony, both as a member of the board of Ako Aotearoa, the National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence which administers the awards, and the very proud employer of one of the awardees - our very own Judy Magee. And , of course, Judy's award is the third in a row for the Polytechnic, following on from the successes of Margot Barton and Adrian Woodhouse in 2007 and 2008 respectively. There was also an awardee from the University of Otago, which has had 4 winners in the last 3 years if my memory serves me well. What's that about Dunedin as the education city?

But it was not just Judy's success that has motivated me - it was the timely reminder about what is so good about working in education: the teaching and most importantly the learning. You see, all 10 awardees, and all those who have gone before are chosen for national recognition because of their learner focus - they are all highly student centred in their teaching. They exemplify all that is good about what we do. Thus, the excellence awards are as motivating for me as graduation ceremonies, where we celebrate student success. And I was certainly in need of motivation!!!!!

What made the awards so uplifting for me is that they came along in the context of a polytechnic sector that is taking a battering - by government and officials alike. We are constantly under attack for being inefficient, not giving value for money and for the sins of the past. It is hard to believe that "radio waiata", "twilight golf" and "coolIT" are all over 5 years old. Yet those who wield the power in Wellington act as if they all occurred last month! Even in the context of a severe recession I struggle to understand why any business owner would deliberately torpedo the prospects of their own businesses being successful. But that is what our owners are doing - withdrawing large amounts of funding from a sector already severely underfunded, obviously run down and from a facilities and resources perspective a joke when we compare our infrastructure with that of our international competitors.

Why is it that as their response to the recession our competitors in the global education market place are increasing their investment in polytechnic type education, whilst our response is to slash and burn? I think it has something to do with the fact that in other countries governments know that the best response to unemployment is to invest in building the skills of the unemployed. Here, we get crocodile tears and disinvestment: " believe me, we really, truly value vocational education and training, but we just cannot afford it". Well, actions and inactions speak much louder than words!

But let's not end on a moan! I finished up the week enjoying a small function in our refurbished Student Centre. This is now a fabulous facility - no more than our students deserve, of course. But what is really exciting is that the new facility will see hospitality training happening in a real life context. I am looking forward to my first, of many, meals in the new training restaurant. And I also look forward to another coffee ( having had my first on Thursday) at the Common Room in George St - our new Community Learning Centre. Congratulations to those who have turned this former internet cafe into such an attractive learning environment - again blending education and business.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Time flys when you are having fun!!!!

Well now, I cannot believe that 4 months have gone by since my last post. Lots of good intent, but the old blog did not quite come to the top of the priority list. I think I made a fatal mistake in taking a break over Christmas - lost the rhthym, so to speak. Anyway, better late than not at all. 
It was not as though there have not been things to write about, because there have been plenty. But the topic really occupying my mind at the moment is that ongoing problem of polytechnic funding - or should I say, the lack of it.  It is now clear that the current government will not be doing anything to address the problems which the polytechnic sector faces - at least not for some considerable time. In a way I can understand this - the world wide recession has taken its toll on NZ, and the government is facing multi billion dollar budget deficits for many years to  come.

On the other hand, government is still actually  spending multi billion dollars each year, so it is and will be making choices about where spending is directed. There is no such thing as not enough money - it is simply about priorities. And the polytechnic sector is apparently not a priority, and this in spite of the very real positive role we can play in helping the country get the most out of the recession. If there is a silver lining in every cloud then that lining in the cloud of recession  is surely the opportunity to boost the skills of our work force. Now is the time to invest in training and education - both in terms of funding people to upskill - especially those made redundant - and to invest in educational infrastructure. But we are more likely to get a cycle way the length of the country than to have a world class polytechnic sector!!! How sensible is that?

However, complaining about what government is not doing will not solve the problems the sector faces, nor the specific problems facing Otago Polytechnic. So, I have decided to see the funding issue through the lenses through which I usually view the world: the lenses that show the glass as half full, not half empty. So, I am grateful to government for the more than $30m of funding that they do provide. The $5m pa shortfall is merely an opportunity for us to try something different. How hard can it be for a business with a virtually guaranteed revenue stream of over $40m (including student fees) to earn another $5m?  Well, up until now we have found it very hard, but that is probably because we have been trapped by our historical mindsets - mindsets which have not allowed us to function as the business we really are. Yes, a business! Do I hear some cringes already? But to be a business is not to throw away our values, nor to devalue the teaching and learning which we hold so dear. Rather, it is for us to apply with more vigour some basic business principles: you cannot spend what you do not have, nor provide services that do not cover all of their costs. Nor expect to develop and improve if you do not set aside funds each year for that purpose. 

What does this mean for Otago Polytechnic?  Mainly it will be about a shift in approach towards a stronger sense of business discipline. So much which is nice to do will just have to wait until it is economic to do. We will have to take the discipline of cost - benefit analysis more seriously than ever. We will have to focus much more strongly on market realities , and on what our "customers" value. So, interesting times ahead - I am looking forward to engaging with the polytechnic community about how we can seize the opportunities and truly take charge of our own destiny. We have waited too long for government to do the right thing!!